family health history observations

Bathing in the Blood of Virgins – Health Metaphors That Provide Clues to Body Functions

Each morning, I read the 1440 newsletter, which provides snippets of news from around the world, including links back to its sources. It’s called 1440 because that’s when the printing press was invented. []

In the July 28, 2023, issue, I read an article called “New Blood, Slower Aging,” which discussed how scientists had connected the circulatory systems of young mice to older mice and discovered that the blood of the younger mice extended the lives of older mice by about 10%. [Link to article provided by 1440:]

Upon reading this, the first thought that jumped to mind was of the woman who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youthful appearance. Obviously, she was onto something, though she went about it in a gruesome and murderous way. Not that hooking young mice up to old mice isn’t gruesome in its own way.

Anyway, I had to look up the blood-bathing woman because I didn’t know her name or history. A quick look at Wikipedia provided a sketch of Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess who supposedly had tortured and killed hundreds of girls and women with the help of four servants. The Wikipedia page indicates that the history isn’t particularly clear on whether she actually killed all these people or was accused of it for political reasons. It does say that the legend that she bathed in the blood of virgins arose years after her death in 1614, with the first printed account of Bathory’s blood baths appearing in 1729. []

So, whoever generated that legend was the person who was onto something in terms of young blood helping the olds retain their youth. But, how did they know what is now being proven through science?

Shortly after reading about the mice, I read an excellent article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic about chronic fatigue that comes with long Covid and chronic fatigue syndrome. [] While the entire article contains important information for healthcare professionals and those suffering from disorders related to extreme fatigue, a specific paragraph stuck with me:

“[COVID] Long-haulers might not know the biochemical specifics of their symptoms, but they are uncannily good at capturing those underpinnings through metaphor. People experiencing autonomic blood-flow problems might complain about feeling “drained,” and that’s literally happening: In POTS, a form of dysautonomia, blood pools in the lower body when people stand. People experiencing metabolic problems often use dead-battery analogies, and indeed their cellular batteries—the mitochondria—are being damaged: “It really feels like something is going wrong at the cellular level,” Oller told me.”

Shazam! Health metaphors help provide clues as to what is happening within the body.

Whether Bathory actually bathed in the blood of virgins, the metaphor expressed within the legend that arose after her death showed what people intuitively knew about the age-defying nature of young blood.

As Ed Yong explains in his article, health care professionals in the United States tend to dismiss metaphors surrounding extreme fatigue for a variety of reasons, including our obsession with hard, continuous work in service to capitalism. Still, we use health metaphors to make sense of what we are experiencing during ill health, and it appears these metaphors could help in our diagnoses if they were taken seriously.

One system of medicine that makes extensive use of health metaphors is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Before I got pregnant with Young Son Number Two, I learned that the pulse of pregnant women was described as “slippery” according to TCM. The description of a slippery pulse is that it feels like pulling pearls through your fingers. What a great, poetic metaphor!

When I got pregnant with Young Son, I checked my pulse, and, sure enough, it felt slippery, matching the pearl metaphor. In order to accommodate extra blood flow to the fetus, a woman’s blood vessels will become wider during pregnancy, which explains the slippery pulse. It also explains why a pregnant woman’s sense of smell becomes more sensitive.

Here I am, talking about blood again, but TCM contains an entire range of metaphors relating to heat, cold, wind, and dampness in the body. Each of these can arise on their own or in combination to create imbalances that lead to illness. It also employs the elements of fire, water, wood, earth, and metal. By using observation of the body, with a special focus on the tongue, pulse, and skin, and listening carefully to how their patients describe their ailments, TCM practitioners are able to diagnose and treat patients in a holistic way. One example of a TCM diagnosis is “Exhausted Fire of the Middle Burner.”

Through TCM, the health metaphor has been developed to such a high degree that it is as much art as it is science. We could learn a few things in western medicine by taking our health metaphors so seriously.

To learn more about TCM, check out the book “The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine,” by Ted j. Kaptchuk. []